Indie band Art Nikels changes the Berkeley music scene

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With sounds that soar ephemerally, resonating up through the hills and beyond, Berkeley-based psychedelic-indie band Art Nikels is carving out a space for itself in the pluralistic Bay Area scene, bringing a decidedly Berkeley approach. Outstanding and creative musicians in their own rights, the members of this band of UC Berkeley students and graduates interpret the eerie, swirling sheet music that their benefactor and band specter, Arthur Nickels, sends — along with paychecks — to them. Floating above them in their consciousness and tucked away in some mansion in the Berkeley hills, this mysterious patron — who discovered lead singer Xavier Perrone’s self-released demos online — has never met the band members in person.

“Occasionally, we’ll be standing around and feel like we’re missing the sixth member of the band,” Grayson Flood, the band’s bassist and a computer science and music double major, explained to The Daily Californian in an interview. “On tour, there were some points where we thought, ‘We’ve got to wait for someone,’ and then we realized we were all there. And we knew that Art was there somewhere, nearby.”

Formed in the Berkeley Student Cooperative system about a year and a half ago, Art Nikels’ success stems from a willingness to collaborate and karma’s guiding grace. The five members — singer Perrone, drummer Jake Barczak, keyboardist Robert Gibboni, bassist Flood and guitarist Devon Rodrigues — learn from each other, friends, housemates and surroundings to perfect their sound.

Though the band doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into an ever-changing college scene, members never deny the significant role the co-ops have played in developing their sound.

“Just living at Casa Zimbabwe co-op over the summer, I was influenced to write music that was a little less neat and pretty sounding,” Perrone said of the band’s continuing experimentation. “CZ was the place where we learned how to put some ‘dirt’ on our stuff. I would definitely say the co-ops influenced that a lot.”

The “dirty” setting and artistic force of the co-ops provide Art Nikels with inspiration and a massive collective knowledge. Most of the band members started playing their instruments in genres ranging from metal to jazz before falling for a more ethereal indie rock sound.

“I was listening to a lot of metal bands, but then I came to California and saw the light. And it was wearing plaid,” Perrone joked. Though it’s wryly expressed, the statement perfectly sums up the members’ musical evolution so far, which has obvious influences ranging from Iron Maiden to Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective.

Co-op members contribute to the band’s sound and style. Help ranges from mastering tracks for SoundCloud and Bandcamp to designing album artwork and networking.

“The Bay Area music scene is pretty amorphous,” Perrone said. “It’s nice to be in the co-ops — I guess they don’t really want to be associated with being ‘homogenous’ — but the same pool of people are your friends and you can count on these people to support you.”

The relaxed but supportive co-op spirit pervades every aspect of Art Nikels, even just by happenstance.

These same friends and housemates have supported Art Nikels even outside of the Bay Area. The members recently returned from a four-city California tour, where the show for their last stop in Los Angeles, unfortunately, fell through a few weeks before they left. They asked fellow co-oper and LA native Paula Graciela Kahn if she knew anyone looking for a band that night. Through the magic of instantaneous social networking, Art Nikels found a house party to play on the weekend of the festival FYF, which was when most venues in the area were closed.

The show was an hilariously laidback event with the start time of “whenever, I’m bored.”

“(The party organizer) said, ‘I’m going to send you a picture of the poster I made, and maybe you’ll get an idea of what I’m looking for,’” Perrone remarked.

“She took a picture of the poster on the ground with a knife through it!” Barczak burst in about the bizarre booking. The relaxed but supportive co-op spirit pervades every aspect of Art Nikels, even just by happenstance.

When asked where the band wanted to head next, the members, looking skyward, pondered, “Where does (Arthur) Nickels want us to go?”

They aren’t just passively waiting for instructions from above, though. The band is working on producing more of its own music and releasing an EP and eventually an LP after two of its members go to South America. For now, it may be raining pennies from heaven for Art Nikels, but its ambition and enthusiasm clearly cannot be curtailed.

Contact Cara Cerino at [email protected].